By Jason Menard
Pride or a paycheque? To which force should athletes be beholden? And is there really a right answer in all of this?
The Dominik Hasek situation at this year’s winter Olympic games in Torino, Italy just added a few more sleepless nights to the schedules of National Hockey League general managers and coaches. Their greatest fears were realized with the slight strain to the Czech goalie’s adductor muscle.
It’s the age old question – do you play for your country or your employer? The easy answer, especially for guys like me who don’t have millions riding on every shift, is that the pride of playing for your country outweighs any financial gain. But the realist in me knows that I’m talking out of idealism and national pride.
Things have changed since 1972 – the watershed mark for national representation. During that Canada-USSR summit series, a nation stood riveted as “our guys” faced off against “them.” This series was less about on-ice prowess than off-ice idealism. What should have been simple exhibitions between athletes from two countries quickly evolved into an on-ice battle for social and political superiority.
And this us-versus-them mentality continued on into the 80s and every contest was a pitched battle where ideals were fought for, not with words or guns, but rather with sticks and pucks. These were events and every player: whether they were Canadian, American, Soviet, or other nationality, was willing to drop everything to play/fight for their country.
Alas, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the us-versus-them nature of the games just seemed to matter less and less. How could we, as Canadians, stoke the flames of societal passion when our TVs were flooded with images of displaced Russians lining up for hours just for a loaf of bread? When the entire Eastern Bloc was struggling through the chaos of overwhelming societal and cultural reform, attaching cultural superiority to a hockey victory began to reek of Schadenfreude. It was hard to gear up for a Cold War battle when one side’s supporters ran the very real risk of freezing to death.
Starting with Sergei Priakin in 1989 and continuing with the arrival of the former members of the KLM line — Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov – to the NHL landscape, our once on-ice enemies became just another hockey player. Former ideological enemies were now playing side-by-side with North Americans for the common goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
And with that, International Competition became less of a passion and more of a source of pride. With players free to play anywhere in the world, international competitions like the Canada Cup (and its successor, the World Cup) became the location to see the best of the best play against each other. But instead of ideological supremacy being at stake, nothing more than bragging rights were on the line.
Now average NHL players from around the world are earning healthy salaries to ply their trade. And, despite the cachet of the Olympics or international competition, the National Hockey League is still considered the highest level of play. The Stanley Cup is truly hockey’s Holy Grail. So, for a Dominik Hasek, he has to balance his loyalty to the Czech Republic with his loyalty to his regular employers – the Ottawa Senators – who fill his bank statement with all those zeroes.
Despite any national pride, to NHL general managers the game is a product and the players are their assets. While winning a gold medal is nice, remaining gainfully employed is even nicer. The best way to keep their jobs is to win games – and the easiest way to win games is to have their best players playing at their top level.
That’s why there’s always a risk of allowing players to participate in these games. Sure, there’s insurance, but that only covers the financial loss – no insurance can replace the effect of a top performer on a squad.
For NHLers, whose careers are generally short, they have to balance their desire to play for their country with the risk of undermining their long-term ability to earn a top-level salary. Certainly injuries can happen anywhere, but running the risk during a game in which you’re paid by your employer seems more acceptable than any risk assumed in what is essentially and unpaid exhibition.
Pride is a very powerful force and I’m pleased to see so many athletes sacrifice themselves for the honour of playing for their country. But as international competitions become less and less relevant, the day may not be too far away when a player’s loyalty to his country is superseded by his responsibility to his employer.
And, as people just trying to make a living, will we really be able to blame them when they make that choice?
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